The Way We Work
March 7, 2014 by Julia Camenisch

Editor’s Note: In celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8, the oDesk blog is proud to share the story of Nermin Fawzi Sa’d, an inspiring Arab engineer who’s fought gender inequality to pursue her own dreams and launch a virtual hub for female engineers across the Middle East.

She was stuck at home and frustrated about it. For Nermin Fawzi Sa’d, moving with her husband from Jordan to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia had seemingly derailed her career advancement. Sa’d, a mechanical engineer, had hoped to find meaningful work in the desert nation. But the country’s strict laws forbidding mixed-gender workplaces had brought an end to any engineering ambitions.

While Saudi Arabia has some of the strictest regulations in the world regarding women in the workplace, it’s not the only nation where women have little outlet for their ambitions.

Described by the Human Rights Commission’s 2012 report, women in Pakistan are often “attacked and killed on account of asserting their rights to education, work and generally for choosing to have a say in key decisions in their lives.” In Bangladesh, women earn up to fifty percent less than their male counterparts. Even in Jordan, it’s unusual for women to work after graduating from university.

Fighting gender discrimination

At first, Sa’d felt depressed as she faced the realities of gender discrimination. “Leaving my job and sitting at home was like jumping into a hole. While I love Saudi Arabia and respect their customs and traditions, I also love my career and respect my capabilities.”

While Sa’d struggled with career disappointment, her husband struggled with a heavy workload. And that’s when things began to change. “My husband is also a mechanical engineer and he used to bring his work home. I started to help him in many of his tasks.”

Their partnership proved successful and Sa’d’s husband looked for more opportunities for her. “My husband believed in me so he found freelance jobs for me. As time passed, I built up a very good base of customers who were satisfied by my good work, my time commitment and the fact I could charge less since I worked from my home office.”

Ad: “Female engineers required to work from home”

Nermin Sa'd, founder of HandasiyatWhen they moved back to Jordan several years later, she was in the midst of a project with a tight deadline. Deciding she could use some extra help with the job, Sa’d put an ad in a newspaper: “Female engineers required to work from home.”

Expecting just a few replies, she was shocked by the volume of the response. “The result was that this seven word ad brought me 700 resumes within the week.” Confused, Sa’d followed up with several of the job applicants to find out why there was such a demand for work. What she discovered was a surprise.

“I learned that for Jordanian women, whenever you have a child, the mother is the one responsible for childcare. Babysitting facilities are rare, very expensive and offer limited hours. Engineering work has traditionally required long hours outside of the home, so this is a huge problem. Sixty-one percent of female engineers are no longer in the field.”

Armed with her new insights into all that could be accomplished with online tools, Sa’d decided to open her own engineering firm, Handasiyat. This firm wouldn’t have the normal brick and mortar office, instead conducting business online.

Sa’d developed a customized remote platform geared toward engineers. She also set up a virtual conference room so the female engineers she hired could interact with clients while still being based out of their homes.

Handasiyat is the largest hub for Arab female engineers

While she knew the virtual model would work, Sa’d faced numerous challenges. “Many people laughed when I told them about my idea. They were convinced engineering couldn’t be done online. Funding has been a problem. I’ve also had to deal with people’s views on female capabilities, as we are a group of female engineers who are tapping into a male-dominated field.”

Despite the naysayers, Handasiyat has taken off. “Handasiyat is now the largest hub for Arab female engineers in the whole region,” noted Sa’d. Women in other Arab countries have taken notice and the company receives resumes from female engineers throughout the Middle East.

And even as Sa’d is named by ArabianBusiness.com’s as one of the world’s 100 most powerful Arab women, she isn’t stopping to rest on her accomplishments. “My major goal is to be the first virtual engineering company in the whole Middle East and North Africa region staffed fully by female Arab engineers. I’m planning to expand our services, as well as build a virtual engineering hub run by females where different stakeholders in the field can find all the services they need through us.”

Based on the success of Handasiyat, she firmly believes in the potential of online work. For her, it’s provided the freedom to raise her family and still pursue the job she loves. “Without planning to do so, I have obtained life-work balance as the mother of three children, while still being able to work flexibly on my own terms. I aim to provide women throughout the region this same opportunity.”

Online work opportunities are proving to be a major tool in helping women throughout the developing world earn a living, care for their families and gain economic independence. Celebrate their accomplishments by sharing stories about these inspiring leaders in the comments section below.

Julia Camenisch

Contributing Author

Julia Camenisch is a freelance technology and business journalist. She also works as an editor and copywriter for a wide range of clients, including national magazines, small businesses and nonprofit organizations. Julia brings to Upwork a passion for empowering small businesses through the innovative use of technology.